Few are chosen: Handing out 8 exemptions for RBC Heritage a tough task

ccox@islandpacket.comApril 11, 2012 

Corbin Mills, left, plays during the second round of the Masters in Augusta, Ga. Mills is in the RBC Heritage as a result of his 2011 Players Amateur victory.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

It was bribery at its finest.

RBC Heritage tournament director Steve Wilmot was opening a package that had been delivered to his office. Inside, he found a note which said something along the lines of, "I'll give you the shirt off my back for an exemption."

Underneath that note was a shirt from the golfer's clothing line.

"I tell people there's a lot of tough things about the job and a lot of things I love," Wilmot said. "This is one part of it that's definitely one of the toughest."

Every year, Wilmot and his group are tasked with the difficult responsibility of handing out eight exemptions for the Heritage. Four are unrestricted -- they can go to whomever Wilmot chooses -- while another two are restricted, meaning they go to members of of the PGA Tour. The final pair generally come from PGA Tour qualifying school or the Nationwide Tour.

The Heritage has a limited field of only 132 golfers, while most other tournaments have somewhere between 150-170 players participating. So naturally, the demand for the Heritage's eight exemptions increases. Wilmot says the tournament had close to 80-plus players asking for one of the coveted spots this year.

"You've got to do what you've got to do, but there's so many players worthy of a spot," he said. "You just can't give it to everybody."

One of the first things Wilmot looks for in determining exemptions is local flavor. Golfers who are natives of South Carolina or the Savannah area are likely to jump to the top of the list. That's happened this year with Mark Anderson, Corbin Mills, Tommy Biershenk, Will McGirt and Brian Harman.

Anderson -- a Beaufort native who played for the University of South Carolina -- will be playing in his fourth consecutive Heritage, while Mills, a current Clemson golfer from Easley, will make the trek down to Hilton Head Island after competing in the Masters this week. He claimed his exemption after winning the the Players Amateur in 2011.

Biershenk is a Clemson alum from Inman, and McGirt graduated from Wofford. Harman, a Savannah native who was an All-American at the University of Georgia, rounds out the list.

"It's important to us to have additional (press) around the state plus tickets," Wilmot said. "They're going to sell us tickets having some of these great local stories."

Connections to the Heritage's sponsors and previous success also can't hurt one's chance of claiming an exemption. Such is the case for Mike Weir, who is sponsored by the Royal Bank of Canada and is best known for winning the Masters back in 2003.

Wilmot said a personal touch certainly helps a player's chances at grabbing an exemption.

"Something that's important to me is a personal phone call," he said. "For me to get a phone call from an agent, significant other, spouse or some copied letter, ... Guess what? If it's important to you, and we're giving you an opportunity to come inside the ropes and make a million dollars, I better feel that it's personal."

And if that doesn't work, you can also try to send him a shirt. Wilmot wears a husky petite.

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